'Rock stars of American cheese': the enduring legacy of Cowgirl Creamery

'Rock stars of American cheese': the enduring legacy of Cowgirl Creamery

Over the course of two decades, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith created a beloved California brand – and helped redefine our relationship to food

Peggy Smith, left, and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery.
Peggy Smith, left, and Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery. Photograph: Courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery

When Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced their retirement last month from Cowgirl Creamery – the cheese company they grew from plucky startup to leader in the modern farm-to-table movement – the tributes came in thick and fast.

To their devoted followers, this was no surprise.

Since its founding more than two decades ago in a converted hay barn in the California town of Point Reyes Station, Cowgirl Creamery has become one of the country’s most beloved cheese brands. It is credited with kickstarting a renaissance of artisan cheesemaking; Conley and Smith, meanwhile, have become something akin to cheese royalty.

Amanda Parker, the company’s managing director, describes the duo as “rock stars of American cheese”.

“Peggy and Sue really took a visionary approach toward stewardship of land, of the preservation of tradition,” Parker says. “Their impact continues to be huge.”

Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes, California.
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Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, California. Photograph: Sara Remington

Today Cowgirl Creamery regularly tops must-eat lists from Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and other food publications; it has been described as “the most perfect cheese on the planet”. Its best-known offerings – “Red Hawk”, which has a brine-washed rind as salty as the oysters flourishing in the nearby Tomales Bay and “Mt Tam”, a triple-cream cheese named for the Bay Area mountain – have finished first place at the American Cheese Society and Good Food Awards.

Despite their success, Conley and Smith’s early vision of producing world-class cheese made with organic milk from West Marin dairy farms was originally considered rather renegade, coming at a time when America’s supermarkets were dominated by mass-produced or imported cheeses.

“They educated a whole generation about cheese,” says Alice Waters, the founder of Chez Panisse, where Smith worked for 17 years. Waters says Cowgirl Creamery has been instrumental in shaping the modern food scene, with its emphasis on seasonality, craftsmanship and locally sourced ingredients.

“The great thing they did was learn from others and bring that back to California, and create their own versions,” she says. “Those important questions we all now ask ourselves: where does it come from, where and how was it grown, how was it made, how far did it travel … Peggy and Sue were absolutely on the forefront of that.”

‘It all started with Cowgirl’

Point Reyes, 40 miles north of San Francisco, juts out like an anvil into the blustery Pacific Ocean. The peninsula’s rolling hills and foggy coastline are home to wild elk and seals, towering redwoods, and miles of organic farms.

Cowgirl Creamery red hawk cheese
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Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk cheese. Photograph: Sara Remington

Much like the early winemakers of the nearby Napa Valley, the founders of Cowgirl Creamery strove to produce cheese imparted with a sense of place, celebrating the distinctive terroir of the region.

Conley says they have been using the same brine solution to make their Red Hawk for the last 15 years, lovingly replenishing and monitoring it as you might a sourdough starter. The cheese’s unusual rust-colored rind shifts with the seasons from pale rose to bright orange, depending on the bacteria and wild yeast in the air.

Similarly, the creamery still works exclusively with organic dairy farmers in the West Marin and Sonoma area – most notably the Straus Family Creamery, which has supplied milk for Cowgirl Creamery since its inception.

But beyond perfecting their craft, Conley and Smith have long sought to revive American cheesemaking culture more broadly.

“They have changed the face of cheese, particularly as it relates to agriculture,” says Vivien Straus, whose brother Albert Straus founded the Straus Family Creamery. In 2011, inspired by conversations with Conley, Vivien Straus launched a guidebook called the California Cheese Map, which details the now bountiful craft producers working across the state.

“There has been a flourishing of new cheese producers, particularly in the past 10 years,” she says. “And it really started with Cowgirl. You used to go to the store and buy a block of cheese, and you didn’t think about the farm. Now people want to buy cheese right on the farm itself, they’re really curious to find out what’s behind their food. It’s a legacy that cannot be diminished.”

‘We wanted to preserve this unique area’

Smith and Conley have been friends for nearly half a century. They met in college in Tennessee before moving to California in the late 1970s. Both had careers at well-known Berkeley restaurants before becoming cheesemakers - Smith at Chez Panisse, while Conley co-owned Bette’s Oceanview Diner.

Conley and Smith started the company in 1997 as Tomales Bay Foods. They bought the old hay barn and spent three years getting the permits needed to turn it into a working creamery.

Making cheese at Cowgirl Creamery.
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Making cheese at Cowgirl Creamery. Photograph: Talia Herman/The Guardian

“The original purpose was really to bring attention to the dairies and this landscape,” says Smith, noting that West Marin is home to some of the country’s first organic farms. “At one point, most of the milk from California was produced in this area. It’s so close to San Francisco, but many people didn’t know about it.”

“It’s really a unique location,” adds Conley. “The temperature is pretty much between 40 and 65 degrees all year round, which means the animals are never stressed, and it’s the perfect temperature for a cheese cave. We have high humidity because it’s on the ocean, and there is a lot of flora and unique bacteria that play a part in the cheesemaking process.”

Their site housed a fledgling cheese workshop, as well as a takeout food counter, a shop selling flowers and produce from local farms, and cheese from other nearby cheesemakers, which back then numbered only a handful.

“At the time it was less about making our cheeses and more about showcasing the local culture and celebrating the region,” Smith recalls. “We wanted to preserve the area as a kind of appellation.”

Cows graze in West Marin. ‘It’s a really unique location,’ Conley says.
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Cows graze in West Marin. ‘It’s a really unique location,’ Conley says. Photograph: "Cowgirl Creamery Cooks" (Chronicle Books, October 2013), photos by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

One of their biggest sources of inspiration was Randolph Hodgson, the founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. Hodgson’s efforts to salvage British cheese culture, which had been overwhelmed in the postwar period by mass-produced dairy products, resonated deeply.

“Neal’s Yard set out on this mission to try and preserve traditional British cheese because it was obvious that it was going to disappear,” says Smith. “No one was paying attention to the farmers and cheesemakers.”

Passing the torch

Cowgirl Creamery’s operations have since expanded, but it still operates a bustling trade in that original converted hay barn.

Conley and Sue say their decision to retire has been several years in the making. They sold the company to Emmi, a Swiss dairy company, in 2016 – a deal they say allowed them to retain their independence while offering a cash boost for expansion and a new production facility. Shortly after the sale they were both diagnosed with cancer, and while they’re now in good health, they say it accelerated a desire to pass the torch.

conley and smith
Peggy Smith and Sue Conley. Photographs: Sara Remington.

“You shouldn’t wait to make decisions when it’s a desperate situation. We were lucky we’d already made that choice and were well on our way to turning the management over to our team and leaders, who had already been running the place for a long time,” says Conley.

Looking back, Smith says the thing she is most proud of is the relationships they built.

“For me that is what our business is all about,” she says. “It’s built on collaboration. We never tried to haggle with the price of anything we bought, because we knew it was the price that people needed to get in order to continue.”